Saturday 9 May 2015

Christmas murder is still a mystery

Swansea Pier Murder 1885 – 24 December 2015 (photos: old Guildhall, Sw. prison)

Though most of us get swept along with the season of goodwill at Christmastime, and hope that it will be a time of cheer, of course unpleasant and tragic things do occur then, just as at any time of year.  Three weeks before Christmas 1885 there was a particularly shocking murder in Swansea, where the victim was a little six-year-old girl: perhaps even more shocking was the identity of the person who killed her.

Notwithstanding the opening of Swansea’s third dock, the Prince of Wales Dock, the pier was still a popular place for a stroll in good weather, and it was Swansea pier that was the scene of this murder. 

A 38-year-old widower named John Nash had remarried and lived in Greyhound Street, near Dyfatty Street.  But strangely he had not told his new wife that he had two daughters - a 17-year-old named Sarah who was in service, and her 6-year-old sister Martha Ann.  These girls stayed in lodgings in Plasmarl, but Nash had got behind with payments to their landlady Mrs Eliza Goodwin.  Knowing that Nash worked for Swansea Corporation, whose workers were paid on Friday afternoons, Mrs Goodwin walked the younger girl Martha to what was then the Guildhall (now the Dylan Thomas Centre) on 4th December. 

Evidently unaware that Nash had remarried, Mrs Goodwin informed him that she would no longer look after Martha because of the arrears in rent, which came to one pound sixteen shillings and two pence.  Nash, taken by surprise to be confronted with Mrs Goodwin and his younger daughter, had no time to think through his options, and must have reacted without thought of the consequences.  He took Martha to the nearby pier, where passers-by were alarmed to see such a young girl in a blue pinafore dress out in the dark on a cold and windy December evening.  Two men who were pilots’ assistants saw Nash return alone and became suspicious: they challenged him, and the police were called.  An hour later Martha’s drowned body was recovered. 

John Nash was arrested, and subsequently tried for murder at Cardiff Assizes, where the jury took only 15 minutes to find him guilty: he was sentenced to hang.  With public outrage at the murder, the police feared a possible disturbance on the return journey to Swansea, so Nash was removed from the train at Landore and taken by carriage to Swansea gaol.

It must have been a dismal Christmas for Nash’s 17-year-old elder daughter Sarah, with her little sister murdered, and her father likely to hang for the crime.  One wonders if she and Nash’s second wife ever made contact.

In prison Nash received no visit from his wife, but having previously pleaded ‘not guilty’ he did confess to premeditated murder.  He admitted taking Martha onto the beach, saying that when he found the tide was too rough to get near deep water, he took the child along the pier and pushed her into the sea. 

There were appeals to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, but they were dismissed.

By 1885 executions had ceased to be public occasions, and took place inside the walls of Swansea gaol.  Nevertheless on a cold morning with snow on the ground, outside the prison were nearly four thousand people, who cheered when the black flag was unfurled at 8am to signify that the execution had been carried out.  It was one of two executions at Swansea carried out by James Berry, who left Nash’s body to hang for an hour to fulfil the legal requirement, before it was cut down and buried in unconsecrated ground.

We do not know why Nash had been unable to tell his new wife about his daughters, but that deception led to the terrible crime just before Christmas 1885.                 


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